Boon or Bane?
Can one-room schools prove their worth?
When the tiny Monterey and South Egremont schools were threatened with closure and consolidation last year, parents and other community members responded with a firm “No way.” The dialogue about who will continue to maintain Berkshire’s only functioning one-room schoolhouses (towns vs. school district), who will defray inevitable cost increases, and who benefits from tiny schools, makes its orbit once again. And it very well won’t be the last time.
Both schools are part of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, so superintendent David Hastings finds himself preparing for meetings with boards of selectmen and school committee members by gathering numbers and, perhaps more important, stories. “We are always trying to be smarter when it comes to costs for the small schools,” Hastings says over the noise of students walking by his office during a class change at Mount Everett Regional School. (He is one of the few superintendents in the county with an office within a school.) “In the end, the small schools are an extension of our own small district. And they are an important part of the fabric of our community. I am concentrating on the product, not on the cost.”
The cost hovers somewhere around $25,000 per student at the little schools (roughly $10,000 more per student than at the main Sheffield campus or, essentially the cost of a private, day-student education), and right now the price of running the schools is more than the revenue that they bring in. A recent letter from the Sheffield selectboard to the school committee stated that the district—and the taxpayers—would save $125,000 per year, not to mention a potentially looming half-million in renovation costs if the Monterey school were closed.
Whether or not to close the small schools is open to debate. South Egremont’s enrollment continues to climb closer to its capacity of 21 students. Meanwhile, Monterey is going the other direction at seven students, although its enrollment numbers have been as high as 17 students in past years.
A smaller class size has its benefits, says Monterey’s teacher, Lynn Webster, who came to the tiny school four years ago from Worcester, where the average class size was 26. “Kids would get dropped off in the front of the school, and for the most part you’d never see their families, never know what their parents looked like,” she says. “Here, I certainly know the families and the kids really well. It’s a very organic schedule.”
Monterey children take field trips regularly, sometimes to the town park, sometimes to the post office, and, of course, to the library, where “they get to see adults reading as well.” Hot lunches are transported to the school from the main campus in Sheffield via large foil-insulated bags. Music, art, and physical-education classes require specialty teachers to make the trek to the tiny campuses once or twice a week to deliver the well-rounded education required by the district and the Commonwealth.
“These are not micro-schools; they’re rural, community schools, and they serve a significant purpose,” says school committee member and former Southern Berkshire educator Charles Flynn, a fervent opponent to consolidation. The effect of the one-room schoolhouse experience is evident in the students as they move up through the ranks. Flynn points to the fact that three of the four top students in the 2013 graduating class at Mount Everett High started at one of the small schools. “They build a phenomenal foundation,” he says.
While nostalgia for Berkshire County’s “little schools” provides a strong component to keeping them open, the bigger picture, according to Jennifer Sahn, a school committee member and parent of a former South Egremont student, is that they provide an innovative education model of “schools within schools,” where larger schools are subdivided into smaller programs.
“I actually think that the one-room schoolhouse—as quaint as it may sound—is right in line with current theories of education,” Sahn says. “There’s now recognition that smaller units are more manageable and conducive to the kind of collaboration and nurturing that kids need, especially younger kids.”
The small schools jive with the Berkshire ethos. “Part of what makes the Berkshires distinctive are really small-scale, independent ventures,” adds Sahn. “As resources constrict, people are going to look to take care of things locally. I think having some very localized options for early education fits into that trend really well.”
And small schools are drawing families to the Southern Berkshire school district, says Hastings. “People are buying homes in the district so that they can send their children to these little schools.”